Moving County’s Community Engagement processes into the 21st century

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Arlington County takes great pride in its community engagement strategy which includes a robust communication process that includes a network of civic associations, commissions, and working groups. The County has a responsibility to announce meetings and provide the community access to the minutes of such meetings, as deemed by Virginia open meeting laws.

The Civic associations are a fundamental method to inform residents, involve them in decision making, and solicit feedback. The Civic Associations often bear the brunt of communicating and documenting the county’s presentations for their residents. However, the county’s civic association strategy has seen a series of unforced errors recently: 

  • Mark Schwartz tried to rationalize why the thousands of people that lived along Columbia Pike or used the Pike didn’t know about a major transportation project that is going to take a year to complete. Affected people will need to make adjustments to their work schedules, child care accommodations, and purchasing pattern due to the County’s poor planning and communication.
  • Then in a one-week span there were two sewage spills into Four Mile Run. Other than a cryptic alert and a twitter feed, the County has been silent on the reason, solution, and impact of the sewage spill. A spill that impacts thousands of people that live along Four Mile Run Creek, use the parks immediately adjacent, or the millions of organisms that are impacted by the spill draining into the Chesapeake Bay. 
  • At the Transportation Committee, the County announced moving forward with the Shirlington Road Bridge. However, the Green Valley Civic Association in which the Shirlington Road Bridge sits, was never consulted or informed about the project’s status. Rather the Civic association had to push on the County for answers resulting in an obscure note from the Ombudsman referencing the Four Mile Run Revitalization project where the committee was told the bridge is outside of the scope of the project.
Several Months out…. still no Meeting Minutes

The Commissions and Work Groups are also key way for the County Staff to vet projects with subsets of community interest groups who will then provide advisory guidance to the County Board. The meetings are often an hour long or more presentation by county staff or consultants with a limited amount of time for commission/committee members discussion on the topic. Often these meetings are lacking publicly available minutes that would memorialize the conversation, and when meeting minutes are available, the document is so general and does not attribute conversations and debate to any particular person.

This lack of documentation and access to data contributes to rumors and heresay, results in members’ contributions being marginalized, and impedes residents who don’t have time to attend from having access and insight into the conversation.

These meetings are routinely referenced by the Chairs of the commission/committee or the staff liaisons as the rationale for supporting particular policy decisions in their testimony to the County Board.  When dissenting members highlight that the reports shared with the County Board are not complete or representative to the divide in thought, the County Board is often reluctant to open the conversation up for deeper conversations at the Board level given lack of time and competing priorities.

To date, the county staff hasn’t been held accountable, as examples above show, for communicating properly with community members and often have already moved a project forward. Furthermore, the county staff is perpetuating mis- information with their inability to document meeting conversation and debate creating a hazy version of the truth for the County Board and the general public.

It is unreasonable to think that residents will be able to attend and participate in the multitude of meetings occurring across the county. Today’s Arlington County resident is operating in an ever-complex environment that is complicated by long commutes, multiple policy issues directly impacting their lives/homes/children, and limited time for self-care. The onus is on the county to create a methodology for residents to understand the discussions involved in how decisions are made.

It is time for a video recording and transcript of every meeting that is available to the public within a reasonable amount of time (2 weeks) to enable every resident to have transparent insight into county decision making.

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Arlington County Suggests Eliminating Access to Diversity of Larger Community

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On Monday of this week County Manager, Mark Schwartz, wrote a letter to Arlington Public Schools (APS) outlining a series of sites across the county to be considered for sites for new schools. These sites are located around the county on small lots including community gardens, community centers, and current park space. The site considerations suggest a complete lack of planning prowess and a disregard for the diversity of needs in our community.

Reasons why using the identified public space for schools is a bad idea

  • Security on APS properties will result in the 230,000 people who currently have full access to parks, community centers, and community gardens will then have limited and restricted, if any, access to these spaces as APS or regulations permit.
  • APS shows an inability to maintain its facilities. School facilities have not been maintained at the levels necessary to sustain the type of volume of traffic the facilities need to support.
  • The county has zero respect for the environment. If you go to any of the newly built schools, you will notice that the surrounding landscaping has been decimated from a lack of care and maintenance. At Wakefield, for instance, they are on at least the fourth round of tree plantings and today a majority of those trees are dead again.
  • Three of these identified spaces are in flood plains and would result in the county having 100% liability of all of those spaces for the next flood as the county will not be able to get the spaces insured. All indications are that that another flood will happen sooner than later.

APS needs to expand its instruction facilities to meet a growing student population. I honor that this is a stressful time for schools. However, I do not believe that this display of partnership by the County Manager demonstrates strategic decision-making with the community nor experts. Rather it the easiest offering due to a lack of uncoordinated and unplanned residential growth by the County Staff and County Board.

The County has had several opportunities to buy large lots of property, even in the last couple of years. The Kirkwood/Washington Blvd Property, several lots in Crystal City, and lots along Columbia Pike, including the Arlington Cemetery annexation. The county has also passed up opportunities to expand current school sites as properties adjacent to those schools were developed, including the homes between Route 50 and TJ Middle School, or the homes along the southern border of Wakefield High School.

The County will likely have the option of acquiring [at no direct cost] the River House parking lots in Pentagon City in exchange for density, but instead is proposing a park nearby which is already over-capacity and over-built.

The excuse for lack of purchasing action was typically the lack of cash which is a falsehood given that the county has a reserve fund that is excessive with over $150 million available for use or that the county is in danger of losing its AAA bond rating

The County Board has signaled that it will spend millions to bring more people to Arlington with the 2020 housing initiatives. In particular, the housing focus has been on a population that is most likely to be of childbearing age or have children. Twenty years of data demonstrates that building more housing will not reduce housing costs or improve infrastructure needs in the county. Additionally, we know that adding more housing will result in an increase in the number of students in the school system and continue to stress an already over-stressed infrastructure.

I recognize that we need more schools in the county and, at the same time, need spaces serving the whole community of diverse needs and interests. Some thoughts: 

  • Combine scaling residential growth with policy to scale all infrastructure including schools.  The Dillon rule cannot be used as an excuse.
  • Develop creative partnerships for our most high achieving students with dual enrollments with Marymount University in North Arlington and with Northern Village Northern Virginia community college in South Arlington.
  • Accept that not every school has to have a full athletic infrastructure.
  • Rethink community centers, and schools, by creating incentive policies for developers to create these spaces in the empty unrented spaces or new developments.
  • Prioritize the creation of cheaper transportation options to more economically diverse communities

In an era of equity and access, the County Board has to make some tough decisions. Further limiting the broad majority of residents access to space is not the answer.

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How much engagement should we expect of our County Board Members?

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 It’s been two months now since the surfacing of Christian Dorsey’s financial problems and some campaign reporting issues. He made the declaration that he is still committed to serving Arlington. “My personal financial issues do not in any way impinge upon my ability to work with staff and with our community to find practical, innovative solutions to all these issues,” Dorsey added. “I love this County, and I will continue to work hard to ensure it remains one of the greatest places on the planet to live, work and rear a family.”

However, I haven’t seen much of Dorsey since the scandal and when he’s chosen to attend a meeting, it’s been a quick appearance. Most recently, at the joint meeting of Amazon-impacted civic associations with Amazon and JBG, Dorsey was noticeably missing – if he showed up, he wasn’t participating in any meaningful way. As the board liaison to these civic associations and the incredible impact that the Amazon arrival has on Arlington, as well as, the documented lack of appropriate staff engagement in these neighborhoods, one would think that Dorsey should be onsite to hear the communities’ issues and engage in the conversation. And, when Dorsey has made public comments, one questions whether he may also have a slight conflict of interest. First, with the unpaid referees debacle asking for patience working with a vendor who has yet to pay referees a year out and then with the affordable housing initiative.

Katie Cristol has been much more measured in her comments and staying out of the fray. She has created clear boundaries and, with but a look, makes a person think twice before asking for a meeting or engaging her in conversation. Katie has been completely off my radar and in reviewing recent board comments has been relatively silent. 

There’s no doubt that the County Board role is a big job with lots of critics. However, let’s not forget that the County Board voted themselves a significant pay raise in June 2019. This pay raise gives them the comparable FULL time median salary for the PART time gig. And, that the County Board role is a choice; no one is forcing these folks to run and each of them have the capacity to make several times what they could make on serving on the board. 

This calls to question – what should the expectation be of our county board members in participation in the conversation and understanding the nuances of the conversation at a deeper level? Perhaps, it is simply that candidates are so available pre-election that there is a vacuum after they win. However, the larger issue remains, how much engagement should we expect of our County Board Members?

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A safe place to share…

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Dear Arlway-ers –

Why are author names not required for submissions while some submissions do include names?

The Arlington Way is at its heart, a whistle blowing website. Only at the specific request of the submitter, will AW include names. The website is the result of years of feeling that there was no safe place to share the information that is being illuminated among neighbors. Local news outlets including ArlNow, the Washington Post, and the Sun Gazette, as well as the Arlington Magazine, have failed to adequately investigate and expose the consequences of the poor planning and engagement by the Arlington County Government.

When Arlington RESIDENTS have tried to engage to make processes and decisions better or voice concerns, they have been ignored, shunned, and bullied into silence. And ultimately, too many have ceased to participate. Despite repeated outreach to County Board members and the County Manager, nothing has been done to create a truly safe environment for residents to air the errors of the Arlington County government.

The OECD outlines whistle-blower protection as:
“integral to fostering transparency, promoting integrity, and detecting misconduct. Past cases demonstrate that corruption, fraud, and wrongdoing, as well as health and safety violations, are much more likely to occur in organisations that are closed and secretive. In many cases, employees will be aware of the wrongdoing, but feel unable to say anything for fear of reprisals, concern about acting against the organization’s culture, or lack of confidence that the matter will be taken seriously. The negative implications of this are far-reaching for both organisations and society as a whole. Effective [whistle-blower] protection supports employees in blowing the whistle on corruption, fraud or wrongdoing.”

Thus, in the hopes of creating a safe place for those that have “other” ideas on how Arlington can work, have been vilified when Arlington County’s flawed processes have wreaked havoc on the community [as they anticipated], or need to share their story, The Arlington Way website seeks to create a repository where the patterns of misconduct can be collected, aired, and hopefully bring change to a community where formal pathways have been unsuccessful.

You will note that we have tweaked our tagline to be “the whistle blowers’ site” to more accurately reflect the intentions of the site.

We are looking forward to hearing your story; tell us what has been happening in your community, big and small. https://thearlingtonway.org/blog-submission/

Onward,
AW

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